FOXBORO -- When it came to the Patriots, it was a total team breakdown the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.
Looking for blame in the wake of the Patriots surprising 28-13 loss to the Ravens in Sunday’s AFC title game? How about the secondary, which -- after Aqib Talib went down with a thigh injury in the first half -- suddenly looked an awful lot like the group from earlier in the season that struggled to stop even the most pedestrian of passing games? Then, there’s the lack of a consistent pass rush, or a defensive front that failed to knock back the Baltimore offensive line much of the night.
On the other side of the ball, there’s the quarterback, who again submitted a subpar performance against the Ravens ... as he has done time and again over the course of his career? Or a running game that never got started, and then, when the Patriots fell behind, was mostly forgotten when New England had to pass to try and get back into the game? Or a group of receivers who -- in the wake of losing Rob Gronkowski -- didn’t do enough collectively to help lift the Patriots passing attack?
In fact, the only grouping who might not be at fault here is the special teamers. (More on them in a bit.) In the wake of Sunday’s defeat, the rest of the roster will head into the offseason with a lot of questions about their performance that will ultimately leave the 2012 team with a distinctly mixed legacy.
“It always comes to a screeching halt -- that’s just the way it is,” quarterback Tom Brady said when asked about the flood of emotions that comes with the premature end to a season. “Only two teams advance and those two teams deserve it. We’ve lost before. It takes awhile to get over.”
First, the defense, and the trickle-down effect from losing Talib: The corner came up hobbling midway through the first quarter, and that impact that was felt from the midway of the season going forward was gone. Without Talib, the Patriots defensive backs were exposed: Marquice Cole was pressed into service, and had his issues. Kyle Arrington went from the slot to the outside, and struggled at times. And Alfonzo Dennard was targeted on several occasions, and he also had his problems.
Against a red-hot quarterback like Flacco, the Patriots were left vulnerable, and the Ravens attacked. They seized control early in the second half, and from the midway point of the third quarter through the end of regulation, there was little the New England defense could do to stop them. (In an ironic twist, it was the Ravens who capitalized with the use of the no-huddle in the second half, utilizing an offensive weapon that the Patriots’ offense had used to great effect over the last two years.) The domino effect was seen in the box score: there was no pass rush -- Rob Ninkovich had a pair of sacks, but there was no consistency when it came to getting after Flacco. The Ravens rushed for 121 yards, and three different receivers ended up with at least 55 receiving yards.
“They came up kind of up-tempo a little bit with different personnel, and we struggled with it. That’s basically what it was,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork of the difference between the first and second half.
The offense had problems -- the Patriots getting shut out at home in the second half seemed like one of the most unlikely things you would ever see. (Kudos to Shalise Manza-Young of the Globe for coming up with the stat: The last time the Patriots were held to less than two touchdowns? Week 2 of the 2009 season, a 16-9 loss to the Jets.) A key second-half drop from Wes Welker took all the air out of Gillette Stadium. And on a night where they needed him to rise above, Brady was remarkably pedestrian against the Ravens, tossing a pair of picks and looking very mortal.
In the end, a remarkable lack of complementary football from the Patriots -- particularly from a team that had done so well achieving that balance over the last two months -- at the worst possible time sealed their fate. And now, despite the fact that they finished 12-4 and made it to the NFL’s version of the Final Four, it’ll now be recalled as an eventful -- yet ultimately unfulfilling -- season.
“Obviously, a disappointing end to an overall pretty positive season,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “Tonight, we just didn’t do enough things well enough to win. Give the Ravens credit; they’re a good football team. They just out-played us and out-coached us tonight. They just made more plays than we did. That’s pretty much the story.”
Here are nine other reasons why the Patriots weren’t good enough to advance on Sunday:
THE OFFENSE COULDN’T FINISH OFF DRIVES
The Patriots were in the Baltimore red zone on four occasions and could only come away with one touchdown. That’s not good enough, especially at this level against a quality opponent like the Ravens. In the first quarter, on its second offensive series, New England had a 3rd and two at the Baltimore 12, but couldn’t pick up the first down when Stevan Ridley ran over right guard for no gain, and they were forced to kick a field goal. The same thing happened at the end of the second quarter, when botched clock management left the Patriots staring at a 2nd and seven from the Baltimore seven, but with only four seconds left. Another field goal -- this time, a 25-yarder by Stephen Gostkowski. Those two situations were enough to doom the New England offense, which ended up turning it over on downs at the Ravens’ 19-yard line midway through the fourth quarter in a last-ditch attempt to get closer. A 1-for-4 finish was weak on its own, but when contrasted with Baltimore’s 4-for-4 performance in the red zone, looks even weaker.
QUOTE: “Well, we had one timeout left so we were trying to save that for the field goal. I would have loved to get the touchdown there, but we settled for the field goal to go up, whatever it was, 13-7 at the half. We felt pretty good about where we were at halftime, but we just didn’t come out in the second half and execute very well.” -- Brady on the Patriots poor clock management at the end of the first half.
WES WELKER HAS A MIXED LEGACY WHEN IT COMES TO THE PLAYOFFS
The free-agent-to-be had a tremendous game, finishing with eight catches (on 12 targets) for 117 yards and the lone New England touchdown. For large portions of the evening, he was the only viable offensive option for a team that had problems moving the chains. But like Super Bowl XLVI, this game will be remembered as one where a key Welker drop doomed the New England offense in an important stretch. With 10:15 left in the third quarter and the Patriots facing a 3rd and eight at the Baltimore 34-yard line, Brady found Welker on a short pass on the left hand side, but the receiver couldn’t corral the ball and the Patriots were forced to punt. The idea of punting from the Ravens 34 was debatable, but the fact remains that the drop opened the door for Baltimore, and the Ravens seized the opportunity, scoring on their next possession, taking a 14-13 lead and never looking back. Despite the fact that Welker was drilled on Bernard Pollard on the play before (drawing a 15-yard penalty), he wouldn’t use that as an excuse, only saying, “I was fine. I was fine. Just a missed opportunity.” He wouldn’t get into detail about his future after the game, saying, “I’m not worried about that right now.”
QUOTE: “There are a lot of plays in the game; there a lot of things we could have done better, all of us. Like I said, it really wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t as good as the Ravens tonight. That’s why they’re moving on and we’re not. They were just better than we were in really everything.” -- Belichick on whether Welker’s third-down drop changed the game.
TOM BRADY ALWAYS STRUGGLES AGAINST THE RAVENS
Brady has always had problems against the Ravens over the course of his career, and while he was (almost) always able to pull out a win, he had his issues with Baltimore again on Sunday night. He had a pair of picks on tipped balls, had at least two other passes batted down, and was responsible for some of the worst clock mismanagement this side of Andy Reid at the end of the first half that caused the Patriots to settle for a field goal instead of trying to punch it in for a touchdown. (And we’re not even going to mention the borderline bush-league move of coming in spikes-high against Ed Reed when he was sliding on the final offensive drive at the end of the first half.) In the end, he was 29-for-54 for 320 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions. Better than his usual stat line against Baltimore (coming into the game, he averaged 22-for-38 for 244 yards, one touchdown, one interception and two sacks against the Ravens), but on a day where New England needed the quarterback to be at his best, he wasn’t.
QUOTE: “We stayed on track for the most part [and] avoided some negative plays. But they make it tough on you. They’re a good team, a very good defense. They kept the pressure on, and we just didn’t really stand up to the challenge.” -- Brady on the offense and its performance against the Ravens.
A DISTINCT LACK OF ROB GRONKOWSKI
One of the reasons New England was unable to generate any real offensive consistency on the night was because one of its best offensive options was cooling his heels (and his injured arm) in Robert Kraft’s private box. The Patriots have better offensive depth than 99 percent of the league, but in the end, not having a healthy Gronkowski on the field cost them, both in the passing (one of the best red-zone targets of the last decade, it’s hard to imagine another 1-for-4 performance in the red zone if Gronkowski is on the field) and running game (he remains one of the best blocking tight ends in the league). While 2011 will be remembered as the season that Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez blossomed into the best young tight end duo in the NFL, 2012 will be recalled as one where their health issues (Gronkowski missed five games, plus most of both postseason games, while Hernandez missed six-plus regular-season games) ended up derailing the New England offense from its ultimate goal.
QUOTE: “Whatever we did, we didn’t execute very well. The name of the game is execution and if you don’t execute well against a good team, like I said, you’re not going to come up on the winning end.” -- Brady on the offensive performance.
THE RAVENS WERE PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY TOUGHER
Baltimore’s ability to go on the road and knock off the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds is nothing short of impressive. First, the Ravens went into Denver and beat the Broncos in a double-overtime classic, taking advantage of a host of Denver mistakes and getting some big plays of their own in the process. Then on Sunday, they were able to come into Gillette and beat a team in New England that had never lost a home AFC title game -- and do it while shutting down the league’s most proficient offense in the second half of the biggest game of the year. Frankly, they deserve to get to the Super Bowl at the expense of the Patriots. Regardless of what you think of Terrell Suggs and his gleefully profane postgame chatter, New England had everything set up perfectly for them over the last month, and couldn’t close the deal.
QUOTE: “Tell them to have fun at the Pro Bowl.” – Suggs, talking about the Patriots after the game.
JOE FLACCO WAS THE BEST QUARTERBACK IN THE BUILDING
Even Flacco’s harshest critics must understand that the Ravens quarterback is now one of the best in the league. Sunday marked the second consecutive occasion where he outplayed Brady in an AFC title game in Foxboro, and he will head to his first Super Bowl as a result. On Sunday, he was calm, poised and led Baltimore on a series of really impressive scoring drives -- 90 yards, 87 yards, 63 yards and 47 yards -- against a New England defense that had no answer for what he was able to do. It wasn’t a wildly impressive stat line: 21-for-36 for 240 yards with three touchdowns and zero picks. But in the end, it was more than enough for the Ravens’ offense. Regardless of what happens in two weeks in New Orleans, Flacco -- who will be a free agent -- has set himself up nicely for a impending payday.
QUOTE: “In the first half, we were probably a little bit run-heavy and they did a good job of stopping it, and we came out in the second half and decided to go with what we went with. We didn’t come all the way here to play it safe and hope to win. We came here to win the AFC championship game, and you have to play to win.” -- Flacco on Baltimore’s change of offensive philosophy in the second half.
BERNARD POLLARD WENT ALL BERNARD POLLARD ON THE PATRIOTS ... AGAIN
The Ravens defensive back, who ended Brady’s season in 2008 and (fundamentally) did the same to Gronkowski last year, added another notch to his belt on Sunday when he delivered a crushing blow to Ridley, knocking the running back out of the game and effectively ending any chances of a New England comeback. With just under 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, at the end of an eight-yard run, Ridley collided with Pollard, with the two crashing into each other head-to-head. The ball quickly came loose, and it was clear that Ridley was dazed, with his arms failing about even before he hit the ground. The play was reviewed, but the ruling on the field stood. The hit ended Ridley’s night -- the running back ended with 18 carries for 70 yards -- and wrote a new chapter in Pollard’s already infamous history involving the Patriots. He ended the game with nine tackles (four solo), as well as one pass defensed and a forced fumble.
QUOTE: “It’s just a coincidence, I guess.” -- Pollard on how he continues to be involved in so many freak injuries involving the Patriots.
THEY DIDN’T GET ANY TAKEAWAYS
Credit out own Nuggetpalooza for this one. In his game preview, he noted that from 2010-2012, the Patriots are a combined plus-70 in turnover margin in the regular season, by far the best in the league in that span. But during that same span in the postseason (five games before Sunday night), New England has a minus-four turnover margin, tied with the Saints for the worst in the league in that span. That number grew exponentially worse Sunday against the Ravens -- the Patriots turned the ball over three times against Baltimore and didn’t get any takeaways of their own. Brady had a pair of picks in the second half (one on a batted ball and another at the end of the game) and Ridley fumbled the ball after a crushing hit from Pollard early in the fourth quarter. It goes without saying, but the takeaway model that has worked so well for New England over the last two-plus regular-seasons has failed them in the playoffs.
QUOTE: “We prepared and expected [as to] how they were going to come at us. We failed to execute. They made their plays, and we came up short on the times when we had opportunities to make plays.” -- Linebacker Brandon Spikes on the New England defensive performance.
THEIR SPECIAL TEAMS COULDN’T DO ANY MORE
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but on first glance, it’s hard to point fingers at the New England special teamers. In fact, that group did an excellent job keeping the Patriots in the game, allowing them to win the battle of field position and doing their part to help keep the game tight. The first five drives of the night for the Ravens started inside their own 15-yard line, and their average starting field position in the first half was their own 11-yard line. Four of Zoltan Mesko’s five punts landed inside the 20, while Baltimore’s excellent kick returner Jacoby Jones was held to 10.7 yards per return. In addition, kicker Stephen Gostkowski made both field goal attempts (one from 31 and a second from 25). But despite pinning the Ravens deep on several occasions -- and occasionally giving the offense a short field -- it wasn’t enough. As we’ve previously noted, one thing that was odd was the fact that the Patriots decided to punt from the Baltimore 34-yard line midway through the fourth quarter instead of trying a field goal. On a windy night, it would have been a dicey proposition, but after Welker dropped a pass that would have allowed the Patriots to pick up a first down, New England went to Mesko. The Ravens seized the opportunity and scored the go-ahead touchdown on the next series.
QUOTE: “No, there was no thought of kicking a field goal.” -- Belichick on whether or not the Patriots were going to try and field goal instead of a punt from the Baltimore 34-yard line.